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Reflections on Chanukah and Thanksgiving Happening on the Same Day This Year

All four of my grandparents escaped Eastern Europe’s pogroms, mass killings of Jews,around the year 1900, and immigrated to America. Being Jewish has been a big part of my identity, and I have a very strong sense of Jewish values and traditions, but I’m not religious.


I was born in the 1940s, part of a younger generation of American Jews described by Alan Dershowitz in his book Chutzpahas children whose parents believed that they were guests in a host nation, the United States of America, and that if you made your hosts uncomfortable or angry, they might throw you out. My generation was brought up to make “no Jewish waves.”


I grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Los Angeles. My schools seemed like they were 90 percent Jewish, even though they weren’t, and because my neighborhood was so overwhelmingly Jewish, it felt to me like everyone was Jewish.


The holiday season always presented a problem. Thanksgiving was great,but Christmas came with its own issues for Jewish kids.I felt guilty singing the “Christ, our Savior, is born” verse in “Silent Night,” as it felt like a betrayal to being Jewish, and yet Christmas, along with Santa Claus, Christmas trees, and presents, was incredibly attractive.I felt torn between wanting to be part of the mainstream and being a traitor to my picture of being Jewish. Chanukah never felt like “the real thing” to me because,back then,Chanukah felt like an underground holiday known only to Jews: There was no mention of it on radio, TV, or in the movies. Everything was about Christmas.


I’d gone to one year of Hebrew school at age ten and hadn’t liked it at all. The teachers were old men and recent immigrants to the United States from the shtetls(Jewish communities) in Poland, who taught “old school,” which meant hitting and kicking “smart-alec” American kids. I wasn’t a smart-alec, but it scared me to see other boys treated this way. I dropped out of Hebrew school soon after my father died,because my mother didn’t consider it as important as my father had, and once my dad was dead, my mom didn’t have the heart to insist that my brother and I continue going.


I didn’t step back inside a synagogue until I was 33, when I enrolled my oldest daughter in Stephen S. Wise Temple’s new elementary school, which required parents to become temple members as part of the enrollment process. Someone must have pointed me out to the clergy as an“up-and-coming young guy,” and I was asked to be on the temple’s board, and eventually I became temple president. Out of respect for the office, I actively started studying Jewish history and ethical values, and was bar mitzvahed at 50(which allows me to tell people I’m the only guy I know that both still has his bar mitzvah suit and can still fit into it!). I’ve been in a Talmudic study group for the past ten years.Though I’m not religious, I enjoy studying the Torah and learning its stories and seeing how the same archetypal people and situations that appear in the Torah crisscross our lives everyday.I have learned a great deal about life from the philosophy of Jewish sages and mystics.


I mentioned that Christmas was pervasive when I was growing up, while Chanukah felt like an afterthought—a Jewish substitute for Christmas that didn’t feel like“the real thing”to me.From my perspective at the time, the only thing Chanukah offered was a dreidel(a little spinning top), a few small presents,a dollar or two, and some candy.This was no match for Christmas with its Santa, elves, reindeer, Christmas trees filled with sparkling lights and glittering ornaments,piles of gift-wrapped presents,and the movie Miracle on 34th Street, which centered on the question “Is Santa real or not?” and ultimately decided the issue when the U.S.Post Office delivered thousands of letters addressed to Santa at the North Pole to the courthouse where a man was on trial for impersonating Santa!I was six when I saw the movie in a movie theater,and to me it proved that Santa was real!


I’ve always felt that in the Jewish tradition, Chanukah was not an important holiday and that it became more prominent in America because of Christmas.Recently I asked my rabbi to share his thoughts about my view of Chanukah, and he told me that its importance in the Jewish tradition is not as great as that of some other holidays, including Rosh Hashanah(the Jewish New Year)and the weekly celebration of Shabbat(the Sabbath), but that Chanukah is important. It celebrates the victory of the Jewish tribe known as the Maccabees over the Syrian emperor Antiochus and his far larger army, and the return to the Temple in Jerusalem.It also celebrates the miracle that although there was only enough lamp oil to keep the flame over the Ark inside the temple lit for one day, it stayed lit for eight days, until help came to save the temple.


That is why a major part of the Chanukah celebration is to light candles in a menorah(a candelabrum that holds eight candles in a row) and one shammes candle that is used to light the other candles.The tradition, which wasn’t observed in my house when I was growing up, is to use the shammes to light one candle on the first night of Chanukah and to light one additional candle each night until the eighth day, when all eight candles are lit.


Jewish holidays are based on the ancient lunar calendar,which can vary approximately 30 days from year to year, as opposed to the solar calendar, which is consistent with the exception of Leap Year, and which is the world standard commonly used today.This year Chanukah is coming at the same time as Thanksgiving.This feels appropriate to me, because the spirit of Thanksgiving—of giving thanks—is very similar to the spirit of Chanukah: They are both celebrations expressing our gratitude.


It’s important to focus on and truly appreciate the good things we have in our lives—our family and friends, the food on our table, the roof over our head, the little and large miracles that sustain us every day.I am thankful that I live in America, where I have personally never experienced the anti-Semitism that my great-grandparents experienced daily, and that permeated the belief system that continued fueling fears in my grandparents and parents for a generation after my grandparents arrived in America.I’m thankful that they had better lives because they were here, and thankful that my children were born here.I’m thankful for being an American!


  • 27 Nov, 2013
  • Posted by Steve Fogel
  • 4 Tags

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